Disney’s decision to premiere the filmed version of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical “Hamilton” on Disney+ comes at a price: the potentially hundreds of millions in profit it stood to earn from a theatrical run. But for a company that has tirelessly reminded investors that the streaming platform is its number-one priority, it’s well worth it — “Hamilton” can help cement Disney+ as a destination for event films in the company’s quest to overtake Netflix as streaming king.
Success for Disney has long been defined by its enormous box-office grosses, like the $2.8 billion earned by “Avengers: Endgame.” But now, as CEO Bob Chapek put it last week, its Disney+-Hulu-ESPN+ division is “our company’s top priority and the key to our growth,” where the metrics are less dollars and cents and more subscriber growth and social media clout.
With theaters closed and all eyes on streaming, this is the perfect time for Disney to lean into that strategy. Disney+ got off to a strong start in the fall with “The Mandalorian” and its Baby Yoda sensation, which proved the company and its treasure trove of franchise IP had everything necessary to birth cultural moments in the streaming age. But as the bizarre world of “Tiger King” spawned inescapable conversation, a follow-up special, and an in-development scripted adaptation, and everyone had an opinion about Ryan Murphy’s revisionist miniseries “Hollywood,” so far Disney’s offerings have been no threat to Netflix’s status as the quarantine culture-factory of choice.
The Disney Vault, and library titles from “Star Wars,” Marvel, National Geographic, and “The Simpsons” have surely contributed to an impressive 54.5 million subscribers in the service’s first six months. And parents were delighted when “Frozen 2” dropped early on the platform, offering a surefire distraction for their progeny, and when “The Straight Story” presented a kid-friendly entree into the world of David Lynch.
But as Netflix has shown, familiar, rewatchable titles like “The Office” are only one piece of the magic formula for success in the streaming world — those comfort-viewing picks just don’t drive conversation in the way that can’t miss, first-run movies and shows do. A subscription to Netflix offers both a method of entertainment and a ticket to worldwide discussions. Events during lockdown have been successful for other Disney properties, like ESPN’s docuseries “The Last Dance” and the channel’s NFL draft programming.
“Hamilton” is a rare — perhaps singular — example of something that’s equal parts familiar, already-had-its-moment and an exciting, new event. For those fortunate enough to have seen the musical on Broadway during its $500-million run, the Disney+ release will offer a chance to revisit the pleasures of “Alexander Hamilton,” “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story,” and other songs. And those who haven’t seen it will get a chance to (finally!) see firsthand what all the hype is about. Together, these groups will come together for a renewed conversation around the acclaimed musical and likely give Disney+ yet another boost in subscriptions.
Chapek is delivering on the promise he made during last week’s Q2 earnings call that the company would consider a theatrical vs. streaming release on a case-by-case basis. And for the loss-leading Disney+, immediate profit is not the most important return.
At this moment, Disney+ is already close to hitting its target for 2024 of 60 million-90 million subscribers. As the company continues to roll out the service in new territories — Japan, the Scandinavian countries, and Latin America are next — analysts are now expecting 100 million subscribers by next year. For holdouts, the lure of becoming part of the conversation is likely to be too tempting to resist at a $6.99 a month.